The Tree Ride

Winner of the 2013 Highsmith Competition, Tree Ride received its premiere by the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra on September 28, 2013 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“I drifted on through the midst of this passionate music and motion, across many a glen, from ridge to ridge; often halting in the lee of a rock for shelter, or to gaze and listen. Even when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual trees,—Spruce, and Fir, and Pine, and leafless Oak,—and even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered grasses at my feet. Each was expressing itself in its own way,—singing its own song, and making its own peculiar gestures,—manifesting a richness of variety to be found in no other forest I have yet seen.”

 ~John Muir, Wind Storm in the Forests of the Yuba, published in The Mountains of California

                              Tree Ride was inspired by John Muir’s famous essay Wind-storm in the Forests of the Yuba. However, I came across it in Lee Stetson’s wonderful compilation The Wild Muir, from which derives my title ‘Tree Ride.’  The first time Muir consciously chose to make himself the subject of his writing, he recounts the ecstasy of climbing a Douglas Fir to “obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles.” Muir’s prose uses music as a persistent metaphor to relate his experience of listening to the wind. He describes the “profound bass” of branches and “boles booming like waterfalls; the quick tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur.”

             As if Muir was already describing an orchestra (which in a sense he was) I sought to compose a piece to Muir’s program.  The structure of Tree Ride as an ‘orchestral essay’ takes many cues from Muir’s own style. Tree Ride begins smack dab in the tumultuous exuberance of the storm; perhaps Muir is already swinging in his tree. This opening sound world abruptly shifts and morphs, giving way to an elegiac and lyric orchestral crescendo—Muir and the listener swaying from the purely elemental realm and into the imaginative. The shifting of textures works much like the wind, the listener’s experience always in flux. The use of color and orchestration provide both an ode to the natural world, and an obvious homage to the descriptive legacy of the orchestral tone poem.

              The storm continues in perpetual motion, pushing the listener through several climaxes only to finally pass over, slowly fading into the distance—the trees, as Muir states, “hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, ‘My peace I give unto you.”

              I find Muir’s translation of experience using poetic metaphor deeply captivating as I too strive to translate the experience of natural beauty through music, recounting my own time spent listening and enjoying a proud thunderstorm, high in the Yosemite backcountry. In this way we can, perhaps like Muir, redefine our relationship with the natural world and learn to listen.

An excerpt of Tree Ride can be heard on the Music page of this web site.

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